Budding anti-war movement 'changed everything'
By NANCY MONTGOMERY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 10, 2015
On March 15, 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson gave a speech decrying the brutalization by 200 Alabama state troopers of hundreds of peaceful civil rights protesters in Selma planning to march to the state capitol in Montgomery. Johnson told Congress and the nation that it was time to move beyond a long, disgraceful racist past and provide equal rights and opportunity to all citizens.
“Our mission is at once the oldest and the most basic of this country — to right wrong, to do justice, to serve man,” he said in what’s considered among the finest speeches in history.
Alice Herz took it to heart.
The next day, the 82-year-old refugee from Nazi Germany and ardent pacifist set herself on fire at a busy Detroit intersection to protest U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
“I choose the illuminating death of a Buddhist to protest against a great country trying to wipe out a small country for no reason,” she wrote in a note to her daughter, according to historian Charles Francis Howlett.
Herz’s fiery act was the first of three that year in protest of the Vietnam War. She was followed in her death by two male pacifists, including a Quaker who set himself aflame three floors down from the Pentagon office window of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.
The self-immolations of 1965, patterned after those of Vietnamese Buddhist monks protesting persecution of Buddhists by the U.S.-backed South Vietnam government two years earlier, were the most dramatic acts of a budding anti-war movement. The centralized and diverse effort intertwined with movements for civil rights and free speech and against war, nuclear weapons and communism — then overtook them all.
“Aside from the abolitionist movement, this was the most many-sided, disruptive, destabilizing movement in American history,” Tom Hayden, co-founder of Students for a Democratic Society, among the first organizers against the war and a lifelong progressive activist, told Stars and Stripes in a recent phone interview. “It changed everything. It echoes today in countless ways. It’s lessons learned, and lessons that are lost.”
One day after the attack against protesters in Selma, on March 7, about 3,500 U.S. Marines arrived in Da Nang, South Vietnam. They were the first American ground combat unit in the war that, despite mounting public opinion against it beginning in 1968, would last until 1975, involve millions of U.S. troops and kill more than 58,000 of them, along with about 2 million Vietnamese people.
By early March 1965, the U.S. had begun sustained bombing of North Vietnam in an operation called Rolling Thunder. What had been 23,300 U.S. advisers in Vietnam in 1964 swelled by the end of 1965 to 184,300 troops — despite Johnson’s campaign promise that he didn’t plan to send American “boys” to fight there.
“Our hopes were crushed,” said Hayden, who had campaigned for Johnson. “We were stunned to find that presidents actually will lie to you. Everybody in America thinks that’s true now. Nobody expected it then.”
In fact, few Americans were opposed to sending troops to Vietnam in 1965 and took what the administration said about its necessity at face value. For the most part, they believed what Johnson said in his first major speech about Vietnam in April 1965, at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
“Vietnam is far away from this quiet campus. We have no territory there, nor do we seek any. The war is dirty and brutal and difficult. And some 400 young men, born into an America that is bursting with opportunity and promise, have ended their lives on Vietnam’s steaming soil,” he said.
“Why must we take this painful road? Why must this nation hazard its ease, and its interest and its power for the sake of a people so far away?
“We fight because we must fight if we are to live in a world where every country can shape its own destiny. And only in such a world will our own freedom be finally secure.”
National attention at the time was more focused on civil rights and social issues, including Johnson’s War on Poverty. A four-day uprising in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in August turned the streets into a war zone and caused 34 deaths. Johnson made strides that year, signing into law the Voting Rights Act and the Social Security Act of 1965, establishing Medicare and Medicaid.
But the civil rights movement itself would become a casualty of war, historians have since agreed.
“The Vietnam War divided the civil rights movement and African-Americans more than any other event in American history ... and it diverted attention away from the struggle for racial justice and toward opposition to the war,” argued Daniel Lucks, author of “Selma to Saigon: The Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War.”
University students — many of them veterans of civil rights marches, sit-ins and voter registration drives — in what was a very buttoned-up country began turning their attention to organizing protests against the burgeoning war.
“There was a reason for it; we had experience,” said David Greenberg, a sociology professor at New York University and author who was active in the anti-war movement. “And in 1965, whites were being expelled from many civil rights groups,” he said. With the rise of Black Power, an idea coined by activist Stokely Carmichael, came a desire for black people to define their own goals, to lead their own organizations.
In February and March 1965, Students for a Democratic Society organized marches on the Oakland Army Terminal, the departure point for many troops bound for Southeast Asia. The group also staged the first major anti-war rally in Washington on April 17, 1965. About 20,000 people attended the orderly demonstration, most of them students.
“Teach-ins” became popular — daylong events where speakers would discuss the morality of the war and artists like Joan Baez would sing. One organized by professors at the University of Michigan was attended by 2,500 participants. “We had this very idealistic belief that we were the generation that was going to do wonders,” Hayden said. “We had tremendous self-confidence. If we’d fought Jim Crow in the south ... we could take on the Pentagon.”
Student activists at the University of California, Berkeley — where the free speech movement challenging university authority had begun the year before — marched against the Berkeley draft board in May and staged what’s considered the first public burning of a draft card. On Aug. 31, Johnson signed a law making that a crime.
Six weeks later, David J. Miller, a pacifist and member of the Catholic Worker Movement, became the first to be convicted under the new law, and was sentenced to more than two years in prison. But burning, destroying and turning in draft cards became a common occurrence, even though it did not prevent the protesters from being drafted. Few were arrested for the act, which became symbolic of the protest.
University students were unlikely to be drafted. Former vice president and defense secretary Dick Cheney, for example, received five draft deferments during the Vietnam era, the fourth when he started graduate school at the University of Wyoming on Nov. 1, 1965.
Of the 26.8 million men who were eligible for the draft between 1964 and 1973, only 2.2 million were drafted, while 8.7 million volunteered, according to “Chance and Circumstance: the Draft, the War and the Vietnam Generation,” a 1978 book by Lawrence Baskir and William Strauss.
But the deferment process remained controversial, discriminating against black and poor men who could not afford college. A lottery was introduced in 1969, student deferments were ended in 1971 and the draft ended in 1973.
“The movement became much more militant because of the draft resistance,” Hayden said, because it involved breaking the law. About 50,000 men fled to Canada rather than be sent to Vietnam, he said, and were granted amnesty by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.
By October 1965, opposition to the war was beginning to involve larger displays of civil disobedience. About 40 people staged a sit-in at the draft board in Ann Arbor, Mich., and after being arrested were sentenced to 10 to 15 days in jail.
Much of America was unsympathetic. More than 60 percent supported sending troops, according to a 1965 Gallup poll.
“My dad was a Marine. When I became active in the anti-war movement he disassociated from me. He refused to mention my name in the house,” Hayden said. “That was a sad truth: Families split apart, fathers yelling at their sons, cursing their daughters. We were castigated, as if you were anti-war, you were a communist. The New York Times, the mass media, congressmen looking for votes — they all wanted us drafted or deported.”
Whatever their private misgivings about how a disproportionate number of blacks were drafted to fight, civil rights groups publicly supported Johnson and the war in 1965.
That began to change the next year, when a white man murdered black activist Sammy Younge Jr., a Navy veteran, for using a gas station toilet while on a voter registration drive with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. SNCC became the first civil rights group to join in opposition to the war, and urged African-Americans to resist the draft. “The murder of Samuel Younge in Tuskegee, Alabama, is no different than the murder of peasants in Vietnam, for both Younge and the Vietnamese sought, and are seeking, to secure the rights guaranteed them by law,” according to a statement by SNCC indicting the war.
In early 1965, Sgt. Jan Barry had been to Vietnam, serving in an Army aviation unit in 1962 that he said ferried special operations troops around the region. He’d been bothered by things he saw there, and while stationed at Fort Rucker, Ala., he was growing increasingly disillusioned with the military and the government.
Then the state troopers’ brutality against civil rights marchers in Selma unfolded. He was reminded of Vietnam.
“The abuse the protesters were taking — I thought, holy-moly, I saw the same thing!” he said. “It was the same thing, but it was the Buddhists being mistreated by the government we were backing,” Barry said. “This nasty little dictatorship. We knew that but nobody said it out loud. That put it into context for me — is our government really going to protect the citizens?”
At that point, Barry wasn’t aware there was a peace movement, he said. Two years later, out of the Army and working at the New York Public Library, he saw an ad for a group called Veterans for Peace in Vietnam. He got in touch and found himself on April 15, 1967, marching from Central Park to the United Nations with them — and hundreds of thousands of people.
“We wore suits,” Barry said. “There was an enormous crowd of people. The very first person was a Marine in full dress uniform holding an American flag, marching silently in formation.”
Anne Morrison carries her 18-month-old daughter, Emily, from the dispensary at Fort Myer, Va., on Nov. 2, 1965, on her way home to Baltimore. Earlier in the evening her husband, Norman Morrison, a Quaker, with the baby in his arms, set himself afire outside the Pentagon. Morrison dropped the baby before he was engulfed and she was not injured, but Morrison was dead on arrival at the dispensary. Anne Morrison issued a statement that her husband was protesting U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.